In the past 50 years Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has undergone a radical globalization, emigrating from its homeland of Brazil to every continent except for Antarctica. Today it is hard to go to any major city and not be able to find a few square meters of puzzle mat and some like-minded jiujitseros to roll with.
However, what if you’re not in a major city? What if, perhaps, you’ve found yourself on a remote coral atoll in the Indian Ocean? Well, as of 2019 you would have run up against the hard reality of living without BJJ. Today, that small island in the Maldives has its own Checkmat-affiliated gym and is host to BJJ celebrities from around the world.
This is the story of how that gym, The Red Mat at the Hard Rock Hotel Maldives, came to be and what it’s like training in paradise.
Is Paradise Without Jiu Jitsu Paradise?
Before Tolga Unan moved to the Maldives to accept a position as the manager of the newly constructed Hard Rock Hotel Maldives he was living and training BJJ in Shanghai, China. Already a blue belt, Tolga had realized how important jiu jitsu was to him and the prospect of going without it wasn’t acceptable.
So, Tolga followed in the footsteps of many before him and decided to set up his own gym. He didn’t have answers to questions like who he would train with or who would teach, but that wasn’t important. First thing first was to set up some mats and the rest would follow.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Shortly after acquiring his mats, Rener and Ryron Gracie visited Tolga at the Hard Rock Hotel. Tolga had met the brothers during his time training in Qingdao, China and, to his surprise and elation, when he invited them to visit they did!
Once you learn a bit more about The Hard Rock Hotel Maldives you soon realize why accepting an invitation to visit isn’t much of a chore. The 5-star hotel sits on its own private island in the Maldives, set amongst the turquoise seas of the Indian Ocean. Each room is just steps from the beach and the Hard Rock offers unheard of features like in-room Fender guitars and record players with music curated for your stay.
Regardless of whether it was Tolga’s easy charm or the siren call of the Maldives, Rener and Ryron’s visit helped Tolga’s patch of red mats begin its path to where it is today.
The Word Spreads About “Jiu Jitsu Hotel”
In those early days there wasn’t an official space to train – the red mats had to be brought out before each class and put away afterwards – and the classes were taught by a purple belt. This sort of improvised beginning should sound familiar to anyone who has started a gym: you work with what you’ve got and you’re just happy to be rolling!
After Rener and Ryron’s stay, and bolstered by the duo’s infectious positivity, Tolga began reaching out to icons of the BJJ world, inviting them to come and see the unique experience he had to offer. Soon the Hard Rock Hotel Maldives guestlist could claim to feature some of the best-known Brazilian Jiu Jitsu celebrities including Marcus ‘Buchecha’ Almeida, Lucas Lepri, and Fabio Clemente.
The future of the still-yet-to-be-named gym seemed bright as 2020 brought a brave new year to the resort. Andre Galvao, buoyed by his recent 2019 ADCC superfight win, was scheduled to visit the hotel when COVID-19 brought travel to a standstill worldwide.
The Red Mats Become “The Red Mat”
Thankfully, Tolga wasn’t so easily discouraged and doubled down on his gym during the forced downtime. Based on a recommendation from Buchecha, Tolga reached out to Leo Vieira to see how they could keep his little gym growing. Vieira, the founder of Checkmat, visited the Maldives and quickly agreed that the BJJ hotel concept had fantastic potential.
After meeting with Vieira, the informal training facility signed on as a Checkmat affiliated gym and was given the name ‘The Red Mat’ after the red mats that they’d been training on since the start. With the backing of Team Checkmat the gym received a proper coach – Miguel Daren Rodriguez, the mats were given a permanent home in a covered pavilion, and BJJ was added to The Hard Rock Hotel’s list of hotel amenities.
Training BJJ at the Hard Rock: What to Expect at The Red Mat
If you find yourself fortunate enough to be spending some time at The Hard Rock Hotel Maldives you can expect a bespoke BJJ experience. The gym, like many others, offers a handful of non-BJJ activities like MMA conditioning, yoga, and kickboxing classes. The BJJ classes include everything you’d expect from your home gym from kids classes to advanced classes.
If you’re just getting started on your BJJ journey The Red Mat has beginner classes daily. These classes are a great way to see what the sport has to offer without feeling overwhelmed – after all you’re on vacation!
If you’ve got a bit more experience on the mats, then the advanced classes are for you. As you may expect at a 5-star hotel, the class experience is customizable. If you’re looking for a regular BJJ class vibe then you can expect a top-notch lesson following Checkmat’s curriculum. However, if you just want to get some afternoon rolls in, the crew at The Red Mat are happy to oblige.
Don’t have a gi? Not a problem – The Red Mat provides gis to those who need to borrow one. Have a travel gi that holds a special place in your heart? Bring it along as you can expect free laundry service for your gi! If you’ve ever spent some of your vacation sitting in a laundromat (and I know I have) you’ll definitely appreciate this!
Tolga tells me that there are typically 2 to 3 hotel guests training per week, in addition to coach Miguel, Tolga (a purple belt), a blue belt, and a handful of white belts. When higher ranked visitors arrive they are welcome to share some of their knowledge, making each class a unique learning experience.
A Great Location Means Big Names
I must admit that prior to talking with Tolga I had no idea where the Maldives were. I knew they were an island chain, but that’s about it. Well, it turns out that the Maldives are a short plane ride from Dubai – making them a logical stopover point for ADCC competitors and coaches.
This proximity means that The Red Mat gets more than its fair share of celebrity BJJ visitors. Recently the gym was visited by BJJ coach, competitor, and MMA fighter Agosto Frota, who hosted a small seminar at the hotel. Ronaldo ‘Jacare’ Sousa will be training at The Red Mat for the next few days and Leo Vieira, along with some of his black belts, is going to be visiting in November.
BJJ celebrity sightings aren’t guaranteed of course, but if they’re at the hotel you can expect to be training alongside champions!
Having Your Cake and Eating It Too: Training Jiu Jitsu on Vacation
I think many people have a hard time understanding us folks who practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. The sport is exhausting and painful, creates mountains of laundry, and yet we dedicate all of our spare time to it. When we get off from work what do we do? We go train. When we have vacation time, what do we do… well, ideally we go train!
However, for anyone who has a family this can present something of a conundrum. How do you convince your significant other that a BJJ vacation is truly a vacation for everyone in the family? Well, there are BJJ camps in beautiful locations, and there are even BJJ camps that coincide with Yoga camps… but the reality is it can be a tough sell.
Usually, you’ll be met with a slightly disappointed look and a comment to the effect of “But you always do Jiu Jitsu.” And, if I’m being fair, that is a reasonable critique. It is important to share your time off with those you love – and often that means forsaking BJJ.
The Hard Rock Hotel Maldives, however, is a full-fledged 5-star resort. Yes, it is a resort that happens to have BJJ, but it also has spas, fine dining, snorkeling, scuba-diving, yoga, dolphin watching, music, beach volleyball, and more. The combination means that your whole family can take a vacation, yet you won’t be forced to take a vacation from your favorite hobby.
While I was talking to Tolga about The Red Mat he told me that he often sees guys show up for their honeymoon – a new bride on one arm and a gi on the other. Honestly, being able to take an hour each day to do what makes you happy and then spend the rest of the day in paradise with the person you love sounds about as good as vacations get!
The Red Mat Loves Visitors: The Jiu Jitsu Discount
Tolga started The Red Mat in large part so he could have a place to train, and he’s committed to seeing the gym succeed. One way he is doing that is by offering a discount to anyone who trains BJJ – all you have to do is use one of the following coupon codes and show up with your belt!
For white through brown belts there is a 10% discount available (checkout code: BJJBSC). Black belts up to 4 stripes get 15% off (checkout code: BJJBLK), and for jiujitseros with 5 stripes or more Tolga wants you to contact him directly so he can offer you the best possible rates (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Disclosure: This article is part of a paid partnership with The Hard Rock Hotel Maldives. However, the author of this article genuinely believes this is one of the coolest vacation opportunities around!
Evan is nomadic brown belt, currently traveling through Mexico. He enjoys pressure passes and tacos.